Gustavo Alfaro says Enner Valencia will be fit to face Netherlands after the Ecuador captain inspired a 2-0 win over Qatar in the first game of the World Cup.

Valencia became Ecuador's record World Cup goalscorer with five courtesy of a first-half double in a one-sided Group A opener against the hosts on Sunday.

The striker had an early goal contentiously disallowed by the VAR at Al Bayt Stadium before opening the scoring from the penalty spot after he was brought down by Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb.

Ecuador's leading all-time goalscorer found the back of the net again with a powerful header as La Tri dominated the game in Al Khor.

There was concern when Valencia sustained a knee injury late in the first half and although he was able to continue, the skipper was withdrawn 15 minutes from time.

Ecuador head coach Alfaro allayed concerns over the 33-year-old's condition ahead of the clash with the Oranje at Khalifa International Stadium in Ar-Rayyan on Friday and praised the captain for silencing his critics.

"He is the all-time top scorer for Ecuador, he is going through tough times, he was questioned at times in Ecuador," said Alfaro.

"He managed to score, which means a lot to him. Four or five players took a few blows, but nothing serious.

"Enner will play against the Netherlands, there is no doubt about that."

Qatar were devoid of ideas, failing to register a shot on target as they became the first host nation to lose an opening match of a World Cup.

Felix Sanchez, the Qatar boss, knows they must go back to the drawing board before taking on Senegal on Friday after they were outplayed in their first ever World Cup match.

The Spaniard said: "We fought this game in a certain way, but our opponent had their own ideas. It's not that we didn't want to attack, but our opponent head their own weapons.

"If we want to be competitive, we will need to defend, and be very well organised. When we have possession of the ball we would like to be more effective.

"We will try to help our players and see if we can progress in all these aspects."

Enner Valencia scored twice as Ecuador spoiled the party by beating hosts Qatar 2-0 in the first game of the World Cup.

Valencia had an early goal contentiously ruled out for offside at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday, but Qatar were unable to heed the warning.

The clinical captain become Ecuador's leading World Cup goalscorer with a tally of four by opening the scoring with a penalty and struck again with a bullet first-half header.

Qatar looked out of their depth in their first ever World Cup match, failing to register a shot on target as Ecuador made an encouraging start in Group A.

Valencia looked to have put La Tri in front with a header in the third minute after goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb flapped at a free-kick, but eyebrows were raised when Michael Estrada was deemed to be marginally offside following a VAR check.

The striker was not to be denied 13 minutes later, coolly sending Al Sheeb the wrong way from the spot after the shaky keeper brought him down.

Valencia capitalised on Qatar's defensive frailties again just after the half-hour mark, rising unmarked to meet Angelo Preciado's whipped cross from the right with a brilliant header that found the bottom-left corner.

Qatar had not posed a threat, but Almoez Ali somehow nodded wide from close range right on the stroke of half-time.

Valencia required treatment for a knee injury late in the first half but was able to continue and Ecuador continued to dominate after the break, Al Sheeb palming away Romario Ibarra's strike.

Qatar were devoid of ideas and Mohammed Muntari fired over when a rare chance came late on as Ecuador eased to victory, although there was concern when Valencia was withdrawn with 15 minutes to go seemingly still being troubled by that knee problem.

History will be made when hosts Qatar get the World Cup under way with a clash against Ecuador and head coach Felix Sanchez says "you never know what can happen".

Al Bayt Stadium will be the venue for the opening match of the tournament on Sunday and Qatar's first World Cup game.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup champions are not expected to qualify from Group A, which also includes Netherlands and Senegal.

Sanchez is realistic over the host nation's prospects but is relishing the challenge of trying to defy expectations.

The Spaniard said: "Obviously, I'm not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup, but competing at a good level against those three teams is our challenge.

"Then this is football, and you never know what can happen."

Ecuador are 44th in the world rankings, only six places higher than Qatar as they prepare to lock horns in Al Khor.

Defender Byron Castillo was a late omission from Gustavo Alfaro's squad due to a dispute over his nationality this week.

Alfaro knows his Ecuador side are not well fancied to make their presence felt but expects them to make life difficult for their group rivals.

He said: "The World Cup is totally different from what the qualifiers are. If we are going to play the way we played the qualifiers, most likely we won't have a chance, because we are going to play against the Asian champions, against the African champions and against the Netherlands, who are in the final four in Europe. 

"They are teams that are superior to what we are, for a reason we were in pot number four in the draw, if we had been the best we would have been in pot one or two. We have to be make things difficult, we have to be the pebble in their shoe."

If history is anything to go by, there should be entertainment on Sunday, as the past four opening World Cup games have produced 17 goals at an average of 4.25 per match.

Al Bayt Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for Qatar, as they have won their three previous matches at the venue with an aggregate score of 9-0.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Qatar – Almoez Ali 

Striker Ali was the leading scorer when Qatar were crowned the champions of Asia three years ago, scoring nine goals in seven games.

That impressive tally was achieved from only 10 shots on target and was a record for a single edition of the tournament. Qatar will need him to be clinical on the biggest stage of all on home soil.

Ecuador - Pervis Estupinan 

Left-back Estupinan can make an impact at both ends of the field for Ecuador.

The Brighton and Hove Albion full-back created 22 chances during a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, more than any other defender.

 

PREDICTION

Ecuador are fancied to spoil the party and get off to a winning start. 

According to Stats Perform’s AI model, Alfaro's men have a 41.4 per cent chance of securing all three points, with the draw rated at 29 per cent.

Qatar have a 29.6 per cent chance of coming out on top, according to the model, in what looks like being their best opportunity to register a historic victory.

Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro says the absent Byron Castillo "will be with us" in an emotional sense after a controversial nationality dispute led to the defender not going to the World Cup.

Castillo was the subject of a complaint made by Chile in May, with the Chilean Football Federation alleging he was born in Colombia rather than Ecuador.

The case initially put Ecuador's World Cup qualification in doubt until the FIFA investigation was closed in June, and FIFA's Appeal Committee confirmed no further action was being taken three months later.

Chile appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who acknowledged Castillo's birthplace as being in Colombia, but the claim was dismissed on the basis of Ecuador legally recognising the player as Ecuadorian.

Nevertheless, Ecuador were still hit with a three-point deduction for the next World Cup qualification campaign for using a "document containing false information", and Alfaro was made to leave Castillo out of his squad for the World Cup as the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) wanted to avoid "further unfair sanctions".

Speaking ahead of Sunday's clash with host nation Qatar, the opening game of the 2022 World Cup, Alfaro said: "I gave my opinion. He should be here, that's my opinion.

"I expressed my opinion about the CAS decision. I'm head coach, not a lawyer, I expressed an opinion, I talked to lawyers.

"I respect the decisions [of the Federation]. Byron should be here, but I respect the decision. We'll wait to see if they clarify why the three points [deduction] in the next qualifying stage, but the World Cup started in October. If he's ineligible for the World Cup, then he was [ineligible] for [October]. Ecuador is always facing hardship.

"We didn't cap him while the investigation was open. But after two sentences that said Byron was Ecuadorian, we did cap him.

"If you had only seen the pain Byron has had to endure…the love from the squad to Byron, he's now our symbol, and he'll be with us on the pitch even if he's not with us [physically]."

While there was undoubted sadness in Alfaro's voice as he discussed Castillo's situation, he otherwise spoke with great pride on Saturday as Ecuador prepare to take part in the World Cup's opening act.

He allowed himself a moment to reflect on his own history and the World Cup exploits of his Argentinian compatriots in the past, specifically Carlos Bilardo and Cesar Luis Menotti, winners in 1986 and 1978 respectively.

"First of all, as an Argentinian national, a coach, it fills us with pride [to work at a World Cup]," he continued. "In Argentina, the coaches all make a great effort to be professionals and reach this level, especially coaches like me who've had to work from the bottom up.

"I coached in the lower divisions and have a broad experience with different teams. Now this is my first national team [job] and World Cup. Looking back, there are so many famous Argentinian coaches who acted as beacons.

"Myself, Lionel [Scaloni, Argentina coach], Tata Martino [Mexico coach], we want to continue that legacy. It's up to us to represent Argentinian coaches now.

"Many have been in this position before. It's a great privilege for me to be part of that exclusive list of coaches at a World Cup, but on the other hand there aren't that many of us who've been able to coach our team in the opening game.

"Today, I feel very proud to come from Rafaela, to have been part of regional football in Argentina, and also the top division.

"I dreamed of being a coach there when everything felt so hard. I overcame many challenges and hurdles.

"I was told I wasn't good enough, wasn't up to the expectations, but when we dream we are able to achieve, I now have the privilege of being here talking to you."

Felix Sanchez has sought to ensure Qatar focus on their football amid the controversy around the nation's hosting of the World Cup ahead of Sunday's opener against Ecuador.

But the Qatar coach is also realistic about his side's ambitions at their first finals, considering Ecuador clear favourites and suggesting Group A rivals may have already written the hosts off.

Sanchez was the first coach to hold a pre-match news conference on Saturday, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino's extraordinary opening address still prominent in the thoughts of many.

Infantino had defended Qatar following criticisms of human rights issues, its treatment of migrant workers and the illegality of homosexuality.

The topic of workers' rights was put to Sanchez, who replied: "A lot has been said about this – some misinformation, in my opinion. Some of the comments weren't completely fair, in my opinion.

"Obviously the loss of human life in working hours is the greatest tragedy we can endure, whether here in Qatar or anywhere else in the world.

"We just hope this World Cup means all together we can work to benefit the conditions for these groups, not just in Qatar but everywhere else in the world."

Asked whether the controversies had distracted from Asian champions Qatar's efforts on the field, the coach said: "I think that the best thing that can happen to a team and a footballer is to keep calm, avoid any sort of rumours and noise around you from a football point of view.

"Obviously we don't like people criticising our country, but in terms of football strictly we managed to have a great preparation for the World Cup.

"We kept calm. We are in good form. All the players come here with the highest motivation for tomorrow. We will try to give a good performance and be competitive.

"We have to be realistic around possibilities, but we have to do well."

Sanchez believes Qatar are "worthy to be here", but his realism was reflected in his analysis of a group that contains the Netherlands and Senegal, as well as Ecuador.

"It's three games, and we know the level of our opponent," said the Catalan. "Due to their history, their individual talent, their careers where they play, they are ahead of us.

"On paper, they should get the three points. Maybe they count on the three points already.

"But we are here to show we can be a competitive team. We will bring our 'A game' and try to get good results that will bring so much joy."

Qatar captain Hassan Al Haydos added: "We want to show the results of all of our hard work. God willing, we will perform much better than any game before."

Al Haydos appeared to be amused when an internet rumour, which claimed Ecuador had been offered a bribe to lose, was relayed to Sanchez.

"I said before: I think there is a lot of disinformation," the coach said. "The internet is great, but it is also very dangerous, from my point of view.

"For many years, we have been preparing, training. Together we are strong, nobody will be able to destabilise us with this criticism and statements.

"We are very motivated, excited and happy to be playing in a World Cup tomorrow. We are focusing on how to arrive with our best conditions. We don't take anything else into account."

Ecuador have left Byron Castillo out of their World Cup squad to avoid "unfair sanctions", despite the defender being cleared to play by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Castillo was the subject of a long-running dispute after Chile and Peru complained to FIFA that he was ineligible to play for Ecuador in their successful qualifying campaign.

The Federacion de Futbol de Chile provided proof that Castillo was born in Colombia and not Ecuador, as stated on his official documents.

FIFA dismissed all charges in June and again in September when the fresh evidence came to light, but Chile and Peru took the case to CAS with a further appeal.

However, this month's hearing adjudged "no violation of the rules on eligibility has occurred", leaving Ecuador and Castillo free to compete in Qatar.

But Ecuador, who face host nation Qatar in the opening game of the tournament on Sunday, did not include Castillo in their 26-man squad on Tuesday.

The Ecuadorian Football Federation said in a statement: "The process we've had to endure has not been easy to navigate, much less for the player, who is part of our family.

"In order to avoid further unfair sanctions, the Ecuadorian Football Federation feels obligated to not include Byron Castillo Segura in the final list that was submitted to FIFA."

Castillo appeared eight times in qualifying for Ecuador, who finished in the fourth and final automatic qualification spot.

Peru finished fifth and were beaten 5-4 on penalties by Australia following a goalless draw in the intercontinental play-offs, while seventh-placed Chile missed out entirely.

Ecuador follow up their curtain-raising showdown against Qatar with games against the Netherlands and Senegal in Group A.

Ecuador will keep their place at the 2022 World Cup after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in their favour on Tuesday, following attempts from Chile and Peru to have them thrown out of the tournament. 

Chile and Peru appealed to FIFA after discovering Ecuador had used ineligible right-back Byron Castillo in their successful qualification campaign.

The Federacion de Futbol de Chile (ANPF) provided proof that Castillo was born in Colombia and not Ecuador, as stated on his official documents.

FIFA dismissed all charges in June and again in September when the fresh evidence came to light, but Chile and Peru took the case to CAS with a further appeal.

However, the hearing on November 4 and 5 adjudged that "no violation of the rules on eligibility has occurred", leaving Ecuador free to compete in Qatar later this month.

Ecuador will, however, be deducted three points in qualifying for the 2026 tournament after being found to have used false information to obtain a passport for a Colombian-born player.

The South American nation, who face hosts Qatar in the opening game of the tournament on November 20, must also pay a fine of 100,000 Swiss Francs ($101,605).

In a statement released on their official website after the verdict was delivered, the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) suggested they may themselves appeal those sanctions.

"The Ecuadorian Football Federation is analysing the next steps to follow, since it does not share the sanction imposed," the statement read.

Castillo appeared eight times in qualifying for Ecuador, including in both of their two meetings with Chile, but he did not play in either game against Peru.

Chile argued Ecuador should forfeit the games Castillo played in, having finished fourth in CONMEBOL's qualification group, while Peru felt they should have replaced Ecuador in Qatar as they finished fifth.

With only four teams qualifying automatically, Peru instead dropped into the intercontinental play-offs and were beaten 5-4 on penalties by Australia following a goalless draw.

Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are the other nations representing CONMEBOL at the global showpiece event, which runs until December 18.

Ecuador's place at the World Cup in Qatar is secure after FIFA rejected Chile's bid to have their South American rivals excluded from the tournament.

A spot in Group A, including the opening fixture of the tournament against Qatar on November 20, was under threat due to the eligibility of Byron Castillo – who played eight times during qualifying.

Chile presented evidence that Castillo was born in Colombia and were seeking action that would have seen them replace Ecuador in the tournament.

However, the FIFA Appeal Committee has closed proceedings initiated against the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF).

"Having analysed the submissions of all parties and after a hearing had been conducted, the Appeal Committee confirmed the decision of the Disciplinary Committee to close the proceedings initiated against the FEF," a statement read.

"Amongst other considerations, it deemed that on the basis of the documents presented, the player was to be considered as holding permanent Ecuadorian nationality in accordance with art. 5 par. 1 of the FIFA Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes."

Chile could still appeal the decision and take the hearing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

FIFA has confirmed the 2022 World Cup will start a day earlier than originally planned in order to allow hosts Qatar to face Ecuador in the opening match of the tournament.

Qatar had originally been set to open their first World Cup campaign on Monday November 21, with Group A rivals Senegal and the Netherlands scheduled to get the competition under way earlier that day.

But a unanimous decision taken by the Bureau of the FIFA Council means Felix Sanchez's Qatar side will now begin the tournament on Sunday November 20 at 7pm local time – continuing the tradition of the home side playing first.

The opening ceremony has also been brought forward a day to November 20.

"The FIFA World Cup 2022 will kick off with an even greater celebration for local and international fans as host country Qatar will now play Ecuador on Sunday, 20 November as part of a stand-alone event," read a statement issued by FIFA.

"The change ensures the continuity of a long-standing tradition of marking the start of the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony on the occasion of the first match featuring either the hosts or the defending champions. 

"The decision followed an assessment of the competition and operational implications, as well as a thorough consultation process and an agreement with key stakeholders and the host country."

 

The decision means the Netherlands' fixture against Senegal has been moved to a later time slot on November 21, and will now follow on from England's Group B opener versus Iran.

The World Cup hosts have featured in the opening match of the tournament since the 2006 edition in Germany, where Jurgen Klinsmann's team beat Costa Rica 4-2.

Between the 1974 and 2002 tournaments, the defending champions opened the tournament, with France infamously going down to Senegal in the last World Cup to follow that tradition.

Chile intend to launch an appeal against FIFA's decision to dismiss their previous complaint regarding Ecuador's participation at the World Cup.

Nine-time tournament finalists Chile asked FIFA to investigate allegations that Ecuador used ineligible right-back Byron Castillo in their successful qualifying campaign.

The Federacion de Futbol de Chile (ANPF) said it had proof that Castillo was born in Colombia and not Ecuador, as stated on his official documents.

Castillo appeared eight times in qualifying, including in a goalless draw with Chile in September and a 2-0 victory in November.

La Roja finished seventh, meaning they just missed out on a play-off spot, but felt Ecuador should be expelled from the World Cup at their expense.

However, after looking into the claims made by ANPF, world football's governing body FIFA rejected the appeal last month and confirmed Ecuador will keep their place in Qatar.

Chile are continuing to push their case, though, with their general secretary Jorge Yunge confirming on Thursday that a fresh appeal will be lodged.

"We are completely sure about the conclusions of our investigations," Yunge said in a statement.

"It's absolutely clear the player uses an adulterated Ecuadorean document. What is at stake here is not just a place in the 2022 World Cup, but the entire principle of fair play."

Ecuador have been drawn in Group A at the World Cup, which begins in November, alongside Senegal, the Netherlands and hosts Qatar.

Chile's appeal to have Ecuador disqualified from the World Cup in Qatar has been rejected by FIFA.

The appeal was made on the basis of Ecuador selecting an ineligible player during their qualifying campaign.

Football's world governing body opened disciplinary proceedings last month following allegations that right-back Byron Castillo is Colombian and not eligible to represent Ecuador.

Castillo made eight appearances for Ecuador in their South American qualifying campaign.

Chile, who failed to qualify for the World Cup, lodged a complaint, but FIFA confirmed on Friday that Ecuador will keep their place at the World Cup, which starts in November.

A statement on FIFA's website read: "The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has rendered its decision in relation to the potential ineligibility of the player Byron David Castillo Segura with regard to his participation in eight qualifying matches of the national team of the Ecuadorian Football Association (FEF) in the preliminary competition of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

"After analysing the submissions of all parties concerned and considering all elements brought before it, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has decided to close the proceedings initiated against the FEF.

"The Disciplinary Committee's findings were notified today to the parties concerned. In accordance with the relevant provisions of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, the parties have 10 days in which to request a motivated decision, which, if requested, would subsequently be published on legal.fifa.com. The present decision remains subject to an appeal before the FIFA Appeal Committee."

La Roja, who finished seventh to miss out on a play-off spot, would have taken Ecuador's place had FIFA disqualified them. 

Ecuador will face hosts Qatar, Netherlands and Senegal in Group A.

Mexico only managed a scoreless draw, their fourth in 10 matches over 2022, playing out a 0-0 stalemate Ecuador on Sunday.

The draw marked El Tri's 100th Mextour match in the United States, having held home fixtures there since 2002.

In an otherwise uneventful match on the pitch, Tata Martino's side had a late shout for a penalty waved away when Uriel Antuna appeared to have been brought down in the penalty area in 78th minute.

The game faced late controversy when it was momentarily suspended, however, following discriminatory chanting towards Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez with each goal-kick.

Ecuador will now host Cape Verde on Saturday, while Mexico commence their CONCACAF Nations League campaign hosting Suriname.

FIFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against Ecuador over the potential use of an ineligible player in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign.

Chile last week asked the world football governing body to investigate allegations that right-back Byron Castillo is actually Colombian and not eligible to represent Ecuador.

Castillo played eight times for Ecuador in South American qualifying, including a goalless draw with Chile in September and a 2-0 victory in November.

La Roja finished seventh, meaning they just missed out on a play-off spot, but believe Ecuador should be expelled from the quadrennial competition.

And FIFA confirmed on Wednesday that it is looking into the recent complaint made by the Federacion de Futbol de Chile.

The statement read: "FIFA has decided to open disciplinary proceedings in relation to Byron David Castillo Segura's possible breach of the call criteria for the indicated matches. 

"In this context, the FEF and the Peruvian Football Federation have been invited to present their positions before the FIFA Disciplinary Committee."

Ecuador have already been drawn in Group A at the World Cup, alongside hosts Qatar, as well as Senegal and the Netherlands.

FIFA sanctioned Bolivia for fielding ineligible player Nelson Cabrera in 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Chile, awarding their opponents 3-0 wins in both instances.

Chile have demanded FIFA investigate allegations that World Cup qualification rivals Ecuador used an ineligible player during their successful campaign.

A statement from the Federacion de Futbol de Chile outlined their belief that right back Byron Castillo was born in Colombia in 1995, not in Ecuador in 1998, as had previously been thought to be the case.

Castillo made eight appearances for Ecuador in their World Cup qualifying campaign, with La Tri set to take part in the tournament in Qatar at the end of this year.

Ecuador have been drawn in Group A alongside hosts Qatar, as well as Senegal and the Netherlands.

However, Chile released a statement on Thursday detailing their allegations around Castillo and demanding an investigation from FIFA.

La Roja finished seventh in South American World Cup qualifying, just missing out on a play-off spot.

"We inform that, on May 4, through the Carlezzo Abogados studio, we sent to the FIFA Disciplinary Commission a complaint against the player Byron David Castillo Segura and the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF), due to the use of false birth certificate, false declaration of age and false nationality by the aforementioned player," the statement read.

"We understand, based on all the information and documents collected, that the facts are too serious and must be thoroughly investigated by FIFA.

"There are innumerable proofs that the player was born in Colombia, in the city of Tumaco, on July 25, 1995, and not on November 10, 1998, in the Ecuadorian city of General Villamil Playas.

"The investigations carried out in Ecuador, including a legal report by the National Directorate of Civil Registry, the highest authority in the matter in this country, declared the existence of inconsistencies in the birth certificate presented by the player, and reported that this document did not exist in its internal files, pointing out other weaknesses in the document, to conclude that it was possibly fraudulent.

"In addition, an investigative commission of the Ecuadorian Football Federation, aimed at clarifying the irregularities existing in the records of players before this federation, concluded that the player was Colombian.

"All that, obviously, was fully known to the FEF. The world of football cannot close its eyes to so many tests. The practice of serious and conscious irregularities in the registration of players cannot be accepted, especially when we talk about a world competition. There must be fair play on and off the pitch."

 

We know most of the teams and now we know the majority of the games after the draw for the 2022 World Cup was made in Doha on Friday.

The full line-up of teams is still to be determined and the locations and times for each fixture are also to be confirmed, but what we do know is that there will be some extremely intriguing matches in the group stage in November when proceedings get under way in Qatar.

Tournament debutants, check. Cinderella stories, check. A mouth-watering clash between European heavyweights, check. A game to make England fans extremely anxious, oh you better believe that's a check.

Yes, this is a group stage that appears to have everything and, while there is plenty of time for opinions of these teams to change, here Stats Perform takes you through a look at some of the best games delivered by this year's draw.

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

Over 8,000 miles separate Doha and Quito, but both cities figure to be transfixed by the World Cup opener, in which the hosts will make their debut.

Qatar have been dealt a difficult hand in Group A, having also been pitted against three-time finalists the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.

First up, though, is a meeting with an Ecuador side that came through the arduous challenge of CONMEBOL qualifying with 27 goals to their name, their highest tally in a single edition.

Qatar do have recent tournament pedigree, however, impressively beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, with the goal they conceded the only time their net was breached in the entire tournament.

Yet their performance in the Asian Cup that same year did not inspire much confidence in them beating a South American nation. Qatar were knocked out in the group stage with just one point to their name when they appeared in the Copa America.

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

Canada face a challenging start to their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986, a duel with the side second behind Brazil in the FIFA world rankings their immediate reward for a dream run through CONCACAF qualifying.

Belgium should not lack motivation, with Qatar realistically marking the last chance for their 'golden generation' to win a major tournament. Their performance in the group stage across the last 28 years suggests a shock here is unlikely. Since losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in 1994, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 12 group stage matches.

But Canada can afford to be full of belief following a remarkable qualifying run in which they scored 23 goals and conceded just seven in the final round.

Regardless of how they perform, English coach John Herdman will make history, as he is set to become the first person to manage in both the men's and women's World Cup.

England v United States (November 25)

Everybody loves a trilogy. Unless you're Rob Green. England and the United States have met twice in the World Cup, and the Three Lions have not won either of those games.

There was a famous defeat to the USA as England crashed out in the group stage in their first appearance in the finals in 1950.

Acquaintances were renewed 60 years later, with the USA claiming a point after Green spilled Clint Dempsey's long-range effort to cancel out Steven Gerrard's early opener.

England, having lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy and gone unbeaten in 22 matches – conceding only three goals in qualifying – will be the heavy favourites once again. However, a USA side that boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie have the talent in their ranks to spring a surprise.

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste will have a couple of tricky hurdles to negotiate in the group stage, this meeting with El Tri coming before a Group C finale against Robert Lewandowski and Poland.

Mexico boast a superb record when it comes to getting through the group stage, having done so in each of their last eight appearances at the finals.

Facing the prolific talents of Lewandowski and Messi, this is a group that threatens to put that streak in jeopardy.

The Mexico defence kept eight clean sheets in CONCACAF qualifying, and such resolute play at the back will likely be needed for them to defy Messi and Co.

That task has frequently proven beyond Mexico, who have lost each of their three World Cup meetings with Argentina.

Hoping to mastermind a shock will be a face familiar to Messi and his team-mates, with former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino set to lead Mexico into a game against his home country.

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

This is comfortably the headline act as two of the previous three World Cup winners square off knowing victory could be crucial, with the side that finishes second in Group E potentially set to face Belgium, presuming they win Group F as most would expect, in the last 16.

Germany will hope the early signs of progress under Hansi Flick are realised in Qatar, having gone unbeaten in each of their nine games (including friendlies) since he took over from Joachim Low.

Die Mannschaft have conceded just three goals in that run, but a meeting with a Spain side that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and is filled with emerging young talent promises to be difficult in the extreme.

La Roja reached the final of the UEFA Nations League, which they lost 2-1 to France, with that defeat and a qualifying loss to Sweden the only blips for Luis Enrique's side since their shoot-out agony at the hands of Italy.

Germany and Spain have met four times in the World Cup finals, with the former prevailing in 1966 and 1982. They played out a draw in the group stage in 1994, but Spain claimed a 1-0 victory in 2010 en route to winning the trophy for the first time in their history. Flick was an assistant to Low on Germany's coaching staff during that tournament.

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

The appetite for revenge will be high among fans of the Black Stars, who get another crack at Luis Suarez's Uruguay over 12 years on from their controversial 2010 exit at the quarter-final stage.

Suarez gladly took on the role of villain in a remarkable end to extra time in that match, committing a deliberate handball to prevent Dominic Adiyiah's header from giving Ghana a 2-1 lead late into the additional half hour.

The then-Ajax striker was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan skied the subsequent penalty, with Suarez seen enthusiastically celebrating the miss in the tunnel.

Uruguay then held their nerve to prevail in the shoot-out and prevent Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

Now, in a group that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Son Heung-min and South Korea, Ghana could have the chance to send Uruguay home early in the final round of group stage fixtures.

This one promises to be tasty.

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